Theatre is the occupation of romantic nerds.

We believe in ideas. We believe that ideas can change people- and people can change the world. We are, as Alana Valentine suggested in her key note speech last year, conservatives- we love to conserve what we have. We are loyal. We feel the injustice when loyalty is betrayed or abused. We believe that there is nothing more powerful than the potential of space. We are compelled to express ourselves in an ancient art form which we participate in with other people, for other people.

And like any romantic- we don’t think about signing pre-nuptial … and when the cheque comes at the end of the dinner- we don’t want to squabble about the cost of haloumi… it seems against our high ideals. It seems coarse. Ungrateful. Ugly.

And like thwarted romantics we get defensive.

First- I’m going to do a little bit of reporting here- just for those who weren’t able to make it along to the discussion-

Tonight, Ralph Myers stood on a chair amongst a sea of Independent artist- a fiercely intelligent crowd of theatre practitioners- established, and emerging: all under the banner of “independent.” Some have worked in some capacity in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir St, some have been artists who have made pitches, some staff from other theatre companies.

Myers declared that B-Sharp has been “the most artistically vibrant theatre, arguably in the country.”

As in the incoming Artistic Director- Myers has asserted a major shift in the industry. The downstairs theatre will no longer be a place of co-op theatre. It will no longer be a place where profit is shared. The downstairs theatre from 2011 onwards will be programmed alongside the main stage (upstairs season) with 4 shows which will be fully funded by Company B.

According to General Manager, Brenna Hobson, if Company B were to fully fund (at award rates) all the artists who in a year contribute to the downstairs theatre, the cost of running the space would be in the order of $1.4 Million – instead 4 artists/shows will be selected a year to be produced by Company B. The artistic directorate- which consists of Myers, Simon Stone, Eamon Flack (and a yet to be confirmed literary manager) will choose the artists based on what, who and how they want to make work and will fund them. (At a loss to the company). There is no more submissions, and infact- the 4 artists programmed for 2011 will be finalised this week.

The rest of the year (approx 33 weeks) the theatre will be dark. Possibly used for rehearsals for other independent shows- provided that they are fully funding their artists Equity rates.

The main thinking behind this is that the audience can’t tell the difference between an independent show and a main stage show – Myers said tonight if you ask the punter which show had the fully funded artists and which were under a co-op arrangement- most wouldn’t be able to tell… which says just as much about the upstairs shows as it does about the downstairs ones.

In the SMH article Myers sites one of the reasons as Neil Armfield’s departure from the company as AD: ” Neil [Armfield] is one of the great attractors of great artists,” Myers says. ”His leaving [in December] means that there is a pressing need to pay artists something that is at least close to what they deserve.”

The pitch to the room from Myers was more about an opportunity for Company B to produce the work of specific artists- to full fund them to do what they do- knowing full well that the show will make a loss- and the company being ok with that… perhaps making up the loss with a success somewhere else.

There were moments of great vocal support for the move- initially from Tracy Mann, who said “this is the best news, and I applaud this decision”… “stuff changes, live with it…”

Also agreement from Mirra Todd.

Before too long- questions started:
Questions around:
* the selection process, and what will happen to the programming team (Annette Madden and Tahli Corin) who have been the champions of the space?
* The no-warning to submit for 2011.
* why was the decision made after the whole year had been programmed?
* where are the safe and nurturing spaces for emerging artists?
* What happens to the cultural/ethnic diversity of the downstairs theatre?
* Will new plays with large casts be discouraged because they will be uattractive/too expensive for Company B to produce?
* How does paying people and providing less opportunity affect Sydney’s theatre culture as a whole?
*Why is it all or nothing?
* Will Company B enter into co-productions?
* what about rights for devised work?
*Do you think there will be any girls ever?
* will Annette and Tahli be involved in helping programme the spaces?
* Will there be a script reading service?
* will you still be looking for similar shows that B-Sharp has programmed in the past?
* what about projects that have received seed support from B-Sharp?

After the questions. There was a pause.

“Good we are finished,” said Myers.



Ok- the minutes are over- they are rough- but that’s an outline of what happened at the meeting.

Firstly, I would like to first and foremost acknowledge that the spectacular turnout at the Belvoir Rehearsal space today was largely to the community, pride, passion and commitment of Independent artists who, in the face of everything- change, financial instability etc- give a shit. I’d also like to acknowledge that the strength and the diversity and the vibrancy of the independent sector is due to the work of Lyn Wallis, Annette Madden and Tahli Corin, and of course Sam Hawker who was care-taking in the interim between Wallis and Madden eras- who have been nothing short of supportive and nurturing of the artists and shows that have been born out of B-Sharp… it is without the care, vision and approachability the venue would not be what it is.

Secondly, I would also like to acknowledge the Independent producers. All the responsibility, none of the glory- the producers of independent theatre are invisible champions of this vibrant artform. They are perhaps known as their pseudonyms “Arts Radar” for example, and they are intergral to the industry… this model effectively cuts them out- unless they have a show that is fully funded or has financial backing (to support wages of equity minimum). It is the strength of these producers that have made the shows look so good- brought the high quality artists to the venue and have built the reputation of the downstairs venue at Belvoir. I’d also like to declare that the best feeling in the world is paying artists- and when producers don’t pay their artists- they often aren’t paying themselves either.

Thirdly, I’d like to acknowledge that “independent” is not a euphemism for “emerging” or “poor,” though sometimes it feels like it is.

Let’s be clear. There is a door closing to independent artists at Belvoir St Theatre. There is a shift. The established artists who have worked in the Independent sector will be delighted they can get paid and not be treated like they are “emerging” and “poor.” The emerging artists will feel hard done by- unable to be seen, or given opportunities. They will feel an opportunity/avenue has been taken away. When provided with the moral/ethical dilemma “would you rather be paid or would you rather there be no work?” every artist will answer differently.

The misnomer here is that we are still using the word “independent.” No. Company B is expanding to include 4 extra shows a year in the downstairs space… the artists will be selected like any other mainstage company- but they’ll get to suggest the participants on their projects AND it will be in a venue 1/6th the size of the upstairs theatre.

What has been created is a middle tier.

What this will do is push a surplus of artists to the remaining co-op spaces- Darlinghurst, The Old Fitz, Griffin independent, Newtown theatre, Sidetrack theatre, Tap Gallery, Seymour Centre- thus creating more demand there. Belvoir will be seen as more exclusive to be a part of (perhaps less of an open arms family rhetoric)…

Let me just get this straight- I absolutely believe artists should be paid. No question about that. But this is no longer Independent Theatre.

I still have many lingering questions.

Will the subscribers to upstairs be happy to attend shows in a less glamorous space?
Who’s selecting/curating?
Will the artistic directorate see all work, anywhere in Sydney?
Will Belvoir’s National scope mean that works will be imported on a touring venue basis if they can foot the bill?
Will the artistic associates be given this space to work in?
What about the Philip Parson’s award?

This decision has a massive effect on the whole industry. And I am keen to hear your thoughts on this radical shift- (And I am not talking about the shift in paying people) in HOW the season is curated. WHO is selecting the artists.

The surprising and difficult thing really is how this information was passed onto the sector… that there was no consultation. That we were told without warning of the structural changes… that artists were given no option to apply for 2011 season. That the uncertainty of Annette and Tahli’s roles (well the fact that the roles “don’t exist”).. the lack of clarity behind the choice of that particular structure. How the media was handled… for a sector so invested in B-Sharp.. a massive show of support and care and camaraderie could only have existed amongst a bunch of romantic nerds…

…and I can’t help but feel that though the sentiment is in the right place, that the process by which this sector has been addressed has been carelessly delivered to us- the vulnerable – the artistically vibrant – the hopeless romantics.